NZSO’s welcome exposé of Schumann symphony and Elgar’s cello concerto

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Grams with Lynn Harrell (cello)

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Op 26; Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor; Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, Op 120

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 4 May, 6.30pm

Lynn Harrell and the Elgar Cello Concerto brought about a full house, not as common an event for the NZSO as it once was.

The concerto certainly worked its spell and the audience was satisfied, but it was Schumann’s symphony that would surely have been the revelation. Half a century ago Schumann was probably among the top ten composers while, in New Zealand at least, Berlioz, Liszt, Mahler and Bruckner, Strauss and Sibelius would have been somewhat more marginal.

Now Schumann is seen primarily as a composer of piano music and songs, plus a few chamber works. But the fierce commitment to this symphony that Andrew Grams managed to communicate to the orchestra, and so to us, changed all that. The slow (Ziemlich langsam), atmospheric introduction with its arresting cello and bass underlining offered the hope of a thoroughly convincing performance, as Grams’s clear, incisive body language seemed to convey a spirit that energised the playing.  Nevertheless, one could be excused for feeling now and then that, in spite of the careful dynamic and tempo shaping that characterised his clear-sighted interpretation, certain musical gestures were repeated too often.

The very short slow movement, marked Romance, which follows the first movement without a pause, received a sensitive performance with attractive oboe and violin solos. I never expect its unheralded end and the following Scherzo is unexpected; it might be one of Schumann’s less subtle, less happy conceptions with its pauses that seem merely mechanical, but the performance offered a charming balance between resolute outer section and the twice-over trio.

A slow, imposing introduction created an air of expectant mystery, as with the first movement; again precedes the last movement which Grams attacked with visual flamboyance and energy that the orchestra responded to energetically. One is grateful, however for the arrival of the lyrical second theme to temper the somehow forced feeling of the main theme and its working out. There was no doubt that the conductor believes in Schumann’s orchestral works, and let us remember that this was the second he wrote immediately after his outpouring of song, and just after his rapturous Spring Symphony; not in his last troubled years when his inspiration became more fitful; Grams’s enthusiasm generated an ardent conclusion that touched both players and audience.

The concert had started with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, one of those pieces very familiar to my generation – I remember it from 78 rpm recordings that we heard in music classes at college – but rarely played today. It is of course a small masterpiece. Its performance was atmospheric, the timpani and strings held in careful check till the moment when sunlight bursts forth. A fine clarinet solo lit the middle section and it subsided with a careful diminuendo.

The Elgar, which for some of the audience was the only reason to be there (several seats fell empty after the interval – poor misguided souls!), was a rendering that might have divided those of the audience who have allowed themselves to become devoted to particular performances. It is not necessary to hear Jacqueline du Pré’s as the only possible interpretation, especially in a work where the composer’s emotions are so close to the surface and so invite cellists (and orchestras) to explore those emotions, inevitably through their own instincts.

Obviously Lynn Harrell comes from a different social and musical background from some of the famous interpreters, and one might have expected a somewhat less emotionally wrought performance than what we had. But in fact I felt his playing pushed occasionally towards sentimentality, elongating phrases, indulging rubato generously, yet he was also sparing with vibrato and he always judged his balance with the orchestra astutely (and the orchestra with him). In the more overtly virtuosic passages his playing was fluent and agile, musical above all. The concerto is nevertheless given to certain rhetorical touches that are a bit wearying – those big chords that punctuate the lines of the last movement, rather like those in the first movement of the Lalo concerto.

The audience responded with great enthusiasm and he rewarded them with an arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat (Op 9 No 2), overacted somewhat, but an attractive, well-received encore.

The concert was at least as important for its orchestral contribution under this youngish American whose extrovert and clearly delineated command brought energy and varied colour to the entire concert.

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